Review: Tovah Feldshuh

A cabaret show performed in the cellar of Studio 54 about Manhattan real estate legend Leona Helmsley, as played by Tovah Feldshuh…it doesn’t get more NEW YORK than this! All this with a voice over introduction by New York Post columnist Cindy Adams…well, as Adams ends every column “Only in New York, kids!”

Feldshuh has put together a mad, fabulous cabaret act featuring highlights from the new “Broadway-bound” musical Queen of Mean, based on the New York Times best-selling biography by Piers Ransdell. It’s all very meta, with Tovah as Leona forcefully advising the show’s composers (Ron Passaro, music; David Lee, lyrics) about what should and should not be included in the musical. Basically, Leona’s retrying her various legal cases in the court of cabaret.

The spine of the act is songs from the musical, but Tovah throws in random verses and choruses from showtunes and pop songs to help tell the story in a more compact form. Helmsley comments on all that befell her, including some profoundly hypocritical shade from her real estate rival Donald Trump.

Feldshuh is as smart, skillful and sharp as always. This act features precious little shtick, but possesses lots of the heartfelt quality Tovah brings to everything she does, allowing us to see Helmsley in quite a different light. Passaro and Lee’s songs hold up well with the standards and hits Feldshuh mixes in, which is a very good sign.

Director Jeff Harnar has helped Tovah construct a very well-oiled machine, truly sophisticated in the way it attacks its subject matter. Almost without fail, the comedy is bitingly joyous and the moments of sentiment genuine and surprisingly touching. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

For more reviews and interviews by Jonathan Warman, see his blog Drama Queen.

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Review: Charles Busch

Legendary playwright and actor Charles Busch’s current cabaret act – titled “Native New Yorker” – is in some ways a sequel to his previous autobiographical club act “My Kinda ’60s.” As with that act, we again find Charles in boy drag – albeit with a subtle dash of rouge, wearing a patterned iridescent suit of crimson and purple. Here, again, the lack of wigs and dresses also signifies that Charles is expressing something more personal and vulnerable.

That’s because this act is about Busch’s journey to being the camp drag star we know today. Busch is very precise about his pop culture references. He successfully catches the feeling of coming of age (as an artist) at a time when life felt like a non-stop party. As a matter of fact one of the definite high points of the show is a touching rendition of the titular disco song as an late night / early morning ballad.

The act isn’t all earnest sincerity, though there’s more of that than usual. There are still plenty of quoted classic movie star mannerisms. As always, he moves from one glittering camp archetype to another with effortless ease. It’s just the tone that has shifted. It’s fun, but the theme of seriously searching for your very own queer identity – which runs through all of his work – is much more explicit.

He has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. Busch has a pleasantly throaty high tenor voice. As with the greatest cabaret singers, it’s all about how Busch acts the story and emotion of a song: He finds corners I didn’t know existed in Diana Ross’s “Touch Me in the Morning,” reinterpreting it as an older man letting go of a a younger lover.

Busch sincerely loves artifice, and he invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: True West

A “straight boy play” that’s actually funny! More than that, a play that consciously caricatures many myths of the of the American heterosexual boy-man-child. Sam Shepard, True West‘s late playwright, was always more of a surrealist satirist than people give him credit for. He’s not celebrating the macho bad boy like Mamet or LaBute, but ruthlessly dissecting him. Shepard never lost an affection for the myth of the lonely cowboy, or the menacing trick of the Pintereque pause; however, he is also smart enough to know that they are myths and tricks, and clever enough to show them as such, again and again.

True West is about what happens when two adult brothers, aspiring screenwriter Austin (Paul Dano) and theiving drifter Lee (Ethan Hawke), cohabit in their vactioning mother’s house. Roles are reversed, hereditary alcoholism indulged, and general chaos wrecked as they try and live up to what they’ve seen in the movies, especially Westerns. Director James Macdonald does a great job balancing the play’s symbolic and psychological components ‒ rightly placing a slightly stronger emphasis on the the symbolic, comic aspect of the show.

Austin initially presents as a milquetoast, but Dano finds darker colors from the very beginning. As he unravels under the pressure of Lee’s more obvious insanity, Dano shows terrific slapstick chops. Lee at first seems to be the kind of “man-boy with brooding menace” role that Hawke is known for, but Lee’s own transformations offer a whole other set of comedic opportunities, and Hawke takes full advantage.

The play is not what you would call “fully woke” ‒ it was written in 1983, for goodness sake ‒ but is certainly more evolved and self-aware than most straight male centered drama of the time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Dianna Agron

“High-falutin’ honky-tonk” – that’s my “elevator pitch” for Diana Agron’s current cabaret act at the Café Carlyle. She originally designed her songlist to compliment her first run at the Carlyle, which found her singing the music of “some of the finest male-fronted acts of the ’70s.” Here, she mainly covers songs originally done by other women. She keeps breaking her own rules to put together a show that feels right, which makes it harder to explain, asking the audience if they have any suggestions.

The former Glee star recently married folk rock band Mumford & Sons’ banjoist and guitarist Winston Marshall. Her own musical aesthetic lines up less with Glee, and more with the style of her husband’s band. This is a beautiful young woman with a gorgeous voice who is nowhere more comfortable than when she’s singing a cover of a 1960s folk rock chestnut or 1950s standard.

On her first run, Agron was hesitant when it come to patter, but calmed right down when it came time to sing. She’s not necessarily more eloquent between songs this time, but she’s all-around more confident and in command, which lends her off-hand comments a kind of raffish charm. No song was less than beautifully sung, and, as before, she performs best when a song brings out the actress in her – most notably in Eartha Kitt’s wicked signature tune “I Want to Be Evil” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”

There’s an enormous amount of potential here – I would give a lot to hear Agron’s huskily golden yet liquid voice act the hell out of some of June Christie’s sophisticated material. The job in cabaret, as much as in theatre and film, is storytelling, and Agron is getting better at doing that in this format. In any event, Agron gives us enough wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs that I can heartily recommend her.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Red State, Blue State

Colin Quinn’s new show Red State, Blue State – about the polarization of American politics – finds him going darker than previous shows. As usual he makes canny observations about our national character, but now he seems less sanguine about our ability to move forward.

He’s one of the better comics doing political satire – he communicates highly complicated ideas through the most mundane and absurdly funny examples. He uses images similar to those from his pocket history of the world Long Story Short, such as comparing the Greece of Pericles and Socrates to a centuries-long podcast, and musing on what Caligula would have thought of Tinder.

Quinn’s manner is engagingly off-hand – this is bigger and smarter than your usual stand-up, but it never totally leaves that sphere. He’s a sharp-eyed satirist, his take decidedly expressing a working class point of view, or at least the point of view that’s been formed by being around working class people.

Also, Quinn generally avoids stereotyping ethnic humor from the bad old days – although in one of the more off-putting bits he complains about missing ethnic humor. Here, he replaces it with regional humor, its safer cousin. For his quite funny finale he comes for each of the 50 states individually. Overall, the show is a jaunty, thought-provoking good time that I can easily recommend.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Ginger Minj

When Alyssa Edwards bragged to Ginger Minj about her Netflix show, Ginger replied “That’s wonderful! I have two!!”She has a lead in the cartoon Super Drags, and a supporting role in the film Dumplin’ which also sports a soundtrack by Dolly Parton. Her latest act Happy New Queer, opens with trailers for those two shows, as well as a new music video for Parton’s “Jolene” starring her and several other Drag Race favorites.

On the cabaret side of the Minj’s ascending career, this new act is possibly her tightest yet, and certainly her most entertaining. Ginger has genuine article musical theatre training and chops, and for this act she combines showtunes with pop tunes, climaxing in a emotional, full-throated rendition of “I Am What I Am.” She’s also very funny of course, combining comic stories from her own life with quick-witted audience interaction, and even more structured audience participation in a “Big Gay Dance-Off” that runs throughout the show.

Ginger’s got her cabaret chops polished to a high sheen. And I can’t go without giving praise to her glory of a wig, big and bright ginger and coiffed to within an inch of its life! Ginger is a real show biz pro going from strength to strength, and had the audience in the palm of her hand all evening long. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Alaska

This is light-years better than RuPaul’s holiday special. Not that that’s a very high bar, since RuPaul’s show was basically an update of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special – only in this one Grandpa Wookie had an album to sell. Seriously, though, Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 from the Planet Glamtron has really been growing as vocal performer. Her greatest gift remains a knack for imaginative exaggeration, but behind all the odd vocal effects and comic lip movements, her actual singing voice is getting stronger and more assured.

This show is called “Christmas in Space,” and is a Star Trek-based holiday-themed evening. The holiday theme is very loose indeed, as Alaska mostly applies her unique vocalisms to songs by the likes of Melissa Etheridge and Heart. The show leans harder toward the “in space” part of the title, with references to the Jasmine Masters Nebula, and the mythical Robbie Turner Asteroid Belt. It isn’t her funniest show to date (that would be her Golden Girls tribute), but it is equal parts clever and haunting. Precision, wit, intelligence and creativity have been Alaska’s hallmarks for a while, and all of those are on clear display here.

Plus, the show was snappy and short (another Alaska hallmark)! That never happens in drag cabaret! I’m almost tempted to say she should flesh it out a bit and make it longer, but the Star Trek jokes were already beginning to wear a bit thin, so it is probably exactly as long as it need to be. Very gay, a lot of fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.